Late for Life

Knuck rested against the damp bricks of the abandoned pharmacy and coughed until the fit passed. He spat blood-tinged sputum in the gutter with precise aim. The irony was he’d outlived everybody. He was the only one left to voice questions about the night Rosie disappeared. Her loss became the measure of time by which all things were judged. Gin dulled his guilt but regrets too numerous to acknowledge stacked up around him like cordage forming an invisible funeral pyre. A single stray spark would consume the fractured ruin of his life.

Pushing off the wall he tapped another cigarette from the crumpled box, never slowed his pace as he lit the tip. Even now he could take down men half his age. The tattooed bastards roaming the waterfront today didn’t know how to take a punch, or throw one. He sucked the smoke deep, enjoyed the flash of pain in his lungs, and fed the intense ache hardened by the passage of years.

Swiveling, he listened to the crisp footfalls increase in tempo. Another joker about to learn he wasn’t an easy mark. Twenty feet farther he flicked the unfiltered stub across the wet pavement, watched the tiny red coal wink out. Veering down a narrow alley, Knuck flexed his fingers and limbered his elbows. A couple of body jabs and he’d go on his way again.

Bricktown was strangely absent of nightlife. Regular police sweeps purged the destitute and itinerant from public view as the mayor’s revitalization plan for the decrepit old port district gained favor. His pursuer faltered at the mouth of the dark lane. Knuck’s satisfaction surged when the steps resumed. He lunged out of the shadows but the challenge clotted in his throat at the sight of the weapon.

Seconds elapsed. A barrage of disjointed thoughts and visceral memories jounced through Knuck’s mind in random trajectories. Eyes fixated on the bizarre gun, he’d never seen a pistol include gleaming brass dials and copper diodes. Blue light repeatedly arced across a gap to the cathode amidst searing snapping pops. The device looked similar to one of the gadgets on the Nikola Tesla exhibit posters splashed over all the midtown tour buses. The gauge of the tri-power cylinder was massive, larger than the .45 tucked down the baggy pants of the punk who attempted to rob him last Monday.

A cinematic quality defined the man holding him at gunpoint. A charcoal trench coat concealed most of a muscular build and his calm demeanor indicated chilled mercury sliding through his veins. The black Homburg and upturned collar obscured the gunman’s features and focused attention on his broad square jaw. His fancy grey striped trousers were pleated down the front, similar in style to the ones worn in old formal photographs. Immaculate hard-soled leather shoes rang clear in the silence under the steel trestles of the St. John’s Bridge. The weapon jerked to the left. Knuck hesitated, weighed his options, and obeyed.

“You’re difficult to locate,” the man waved toward one of the hulking cement abutments, “but I’ve come to clear the books.” He stroked a finger along the gun’s grip. Fluorescence flashed and electricity crackled.

Knuck squinted. “You got the wrong guy, mister.” Frustrated by the need to piss, he shifted position and ignored the protests of his strained bladder even though at this stage of his life a steady stream was better than sex. “Let’s shake and call this an honest mistake.” He gazed at the grand art deco span, admired the graceful arched lines elegantly silhouetted against the fathomless gloom of the dark sky. Not far away was the fateful meeting place. He’d been late.

An amused baritone chuckle rolled from beneath the hat; white teeth glinted between lips curved in a lopsided grin. “Are you Calvin no-middle-name Manchester, the youngest son of Robert and Beatrice, and former bareknuckle boxing champion of the North Side?”

A pearlescent drop of glowing viscous plasma streamed like molten honey from the end of the spinning barrel. Atmospheric discharge haloed the pair in a sparking voltaic glow and the weight of recognition seeped through Knuck. Time stretched out, drew thin. The mist became a fine rain. The normal sounds of night receded, became auditory illusions. A car horn blared and faded, glass shattered and echoed, the slap of water splashing the pilings intensified. A distant rumble preceded an explosion of steam, advancing in a predatory line by virtue of underground channels, plumes of vapor erupting at measured intervals from the street grates. 

Circulatory system a hissing rush, chest muscles tensed, Knuck inhaled a sharp breath and reluctantly nodded. “That’s me.” 

The stranger tilted up the brim of his hat, displayed a face unfamiliar and yet not unknown. “The stories don’t do you justice.” 

Knuck tried to shake off his confusion. The words made no sense. Skirting the gigantic foundation, he spied the portal mounted to the structural support like a submarine access hatch. Iron rivets the size of his fist affixed the thick metal plate to the concrete column. “What’s that?” 

Appreciative mirth spilled out of his assailant. “I was told you’d question every directive.” He pointed at the entrance. “Open the door to your future past.” He winked. “She’s waiting.”

Heart knocking his ribs, Knuck swung around to peer at the brass inlay and copper-clad hand wheel.  Hope sang through him, obscene in its intensity. He tried not to speak but the question fumbled out. “Who’s on the other side?”

“Your wife.”

Each word a hammer blow, Knuck stumbled forward. Scarred fingers wrapped over cold bronze, spun the oiled bearings, and yanked the heavy panel wide. A blistering solar flare of illumination engulfed his body from behind and the veil of indigo webs crossing the back of his hands smoothed into firm youthful skin. Blinded, he fell inward amid a welcoming cocoon of arms. 

He recognized her scent instantly. “I’m finally dead.” He whispered.

She pinched his bicep. “Don’t be an ass, Knuck. I sent Junior to find you.”

Flash Fiction Challenge: Sub-Genre Mash-Up @ www.terribleminds.com

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